Even if you live in the UK, it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen a sand lizard; and not just because, like most of our reptiles, they are incredibly skilled at staying hidden when they sense our trampling feet nearby. Lacerta agilis is the victim of huge population decline across the whole country, due to the loss of its sandy lowland heath habitat. A complicated place for these guys to live in, firstly because it’s largely plagioclimatic, i.e. it is a habitat maintained by man. The acidic soils mean few plants can grow on it, but among them are bracken and birch, and as they grow and add dead-organic-matter to the soil it becomes easier for the area to revert to woodland: However, grazing by livestock in days gone by prevented this and created the heathland. But as agriculture became more specialised, this became less common. And whatever heath was left would often fall to the second problem: To the non-naturalist, lowland heath appears bare and derelict. Perfect for a new housing estate or golf course.
These factors (along with regular heathland fires, often by kids doing it for fun) meant that by the 70s, sand lizards were confined to a few isolated heaths in Surrey, Hampshire and Dorset. Thanks to the work of Amphibian & Reptile Conservation however, thousands of sand lizards have been bred in captivity and then released to former and new sites across the country, with over 200 regularly been released each year. The sites were sand lizards are present or reintroduced are then carefully managed, ensuring every requirement is met: From open patches for basking to sandy areas in which to lay their eggs.
Whilst the sand lizard is doing better, it is still a rare species given full protection by the Wildlife & Countryside Act, and I was only allowed to take the above photograph as I was in the company of a licensed member of ARC. The individual here is been re-released onto heathland in Dorset managed by ARC, and was one of many reptiles I saw that day (including the equally rare Smooth Snake) as part of their Friends Day last week. For all the fantastic work they do with sand lizards and the rest of Britain’s herptofauna, they deserve far more attention, and if you are not already I hope you’ll join up as a member. The Sand Lizards will definitely appreciate it!